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Bronzes, silverware and enamels. From swords to works of art

Masterpieces of technique and finish, bronzes, silver and enamels make up a large part of Japanese artistic production. These are pure silver and bronze sculptures with high percentages of Shakudo gold or Shibuichi silver. Or objects covered with cloisonné enamels such as vases decorated with floral motifs. Their beauty has traversed time unscathed and has come down to us, retaining an awe-inspiring charm.

What is their genesis? What is the history of these much sought-after objects of incredible historical value today? We find out together in this article. We will tell you how the political and social history of a distant time had a considerable influence on the artistic history of the Rising Sun. 

The swords of the Samurai

The history of bronzes, silverware and enamels is closely linked to that of an iconic figure in Japan: the Samurai. This figure has always had an aura of fascination and mystery around him that remains unchanged over time. From simple servants of the Empire with the task of protecting the lands assigned to them, they soon became important figures. Throughout the Edo period, i.e. from 1603 to 1868, Japan was a feudal society with a rigid class system. The actual ruling elite was the Samurai. It was they in fact who governed, under the leadership of the Daimyo, the Lord, the country’s various provinces.

About the mystery surrounding these characters and their deeds we will certainly talk in a dedicated article. For now, we will focus on the object known throughout the world as their faithful companion: the sword. The relationship the Samurai had with their swords was almost visceral. And one of the ways to honour them was to make them as precious and personalised as possible. For this they turned to craftsmen, who manufactured sumptuous armour for them and finely decorated the swords, making them unique objects. Atsuyoshi 厚義 Maruki company 丸喜社 – A study of a tigerCloisonnè vases

The political events that changed the course of art

Here we come to the crucial junction where the production of bronzes, silver and enamels meets the political history of the country. The social structure of Japan underwent a radical change when the Edo period ended and the Meiji Restoration began. After centuries of shōgun rule, power returned to the Emperor.

On 28 March 1876, the Haitorei Edict was issued. This measure forbade the samurai from carrying swords in public, under penalty of confiscation of the weapon. 

This state of affairs threw the metal craftsmen into despair and they suddenly found themselves without a trade. It was only an initial phase, however, because within a short time the craftsmen themselves reinvented themselves. In the course of time, they had honed extraordinary artistic skills. Declining their craftsmanship into alternative production was almost a natural consequence. No longer able to devote themselves to the manufacture of accessories for armour and swords, they began a production of everyday artefacts. And in many cases of decorative objects. 

Blossoming art

We have so far talked about the particular origin of the production of works that fall into the category of bronzes, silvers and enamels. Let us now discover how the world came to know these art objects.

In the years before the Meiji period, Japan did not enjoy a positive reputation in the rest of the world. It was considered an isolated and still very backward country. The efforts of the Meiji government were therefore aimed at a radical change in this direction. Also the emperor himself, a great patron of the arts, greatly encouraged the production of works of art. The aim was to astonish the Western world with a vast array of sublime and unique works of art. 

The masters of metalwork welcomed this encouragement, but they were not the only ones. In fact, the entire art production of the Meiji period was characterised by extraordinary fecundity. In addition to bronzes and silverware, there was a flourishing production of all art forms. From ceramics, Shibayama inlays, lacquerware to ivory sculptures.

It was the beginning of a great success. Soon, the copious artistic production had concrete results. It did not go unnoticed in the eyes of foreign diplomats, travellers and military advisers who were in Japan at the time. 

But national borders were soon crossed and Japan’s participation in world fairs and exhibitions was not delayed. Hence the veritable explosion of interest in these sublime works of art. This resulted in an increased demand from Europe and the Anglo-Saxon countries in particular, which still appreciate Japanese art today.

Maruki sei 丸喜製 – Falcon

Appointment for the next trip together

We have come to the end of this journey through time. We have met armour-clad samurai cutting through the red sky of the Rising Sun with their precious swords. And we have met enlightened emperors and skilled craftsmen of bronze, silver and enamel. We have come down to the present day and remain in awe of how history can provide us with exciting suggestions of art. 

We hope that our journey has been as exciting for you as it is for us every day.

See you on the next trip!